Rogue Tokyo architect sparks quake safety fears

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Shoddy builders are the butt of jokes everywhere, but in a country struck by thousands of earthquakes a year, solid foundations are a deadly serious business. So when the Japanese architect Hidetsugu Aneha admitted recently that he had faked reports on the structural soundness of dozens of his buildings, he was shown little mercy.

Mr Aneha was forced into hiding following a roasting from media commentators who mocked his bad toupee, his unconvincing mea culpa and his apparent inability to read construction manuals. Before he disappeared, the 48-year-old apologised but said it "wasn't completely" his fault that at least 20 condominiums and one hotel will have to be pulled down because of his fraud.

The Tokyo metropolitan area, which sits on one of the planet's most unstable geological foundations, boasts notoriously tough building regulations. But Mr Aneha discovered in 2002 that he could build faster by simply ignoring the more expensive rules, such as the requirement that concrete be reinforced with thick steel bars.

"I felt pressure from the industry's overall trend to seek speed and low cost," Mr Aneha said, adding that he was "too busy" to feel guilty. "I started faking reports because I wanted to get more contracts. But as I started to receive more offers, I kept [faking reports] to get the work done."

The damage from the Aneha scandal is only starting to sink in; government inspectors have been sent to check hundreds of buildings around the country and Kyodo News has already uncovered at least 14 hotels and 21 apartment blocks unlikely to withstand a strong earthquake. A new 14-storey Tokyo hotel opened in August this year has been ordered to close its doors.

Factor in the billions of yen in damages, the hundreds of families that will have to find new homes and several suicides linked to the scandal, and the whole business looks very messy. But many are starting to fear that this is only the tip of a very big iceberg.

Japan's ministry of infrastructure has found 62 doomed buildings designed by Mr Aneha alone, and he is just one of more than 300,000 licensed Japanese architects employed to smooth the passage of building designs past beady-eyed construction bureaucrats. Tsutomu Takebe, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said that the spreading scandal may "ruin the Japanese economy" by destroying public faith in the construction industry.

Competition for construction contracts, which account for about 10 per cent of the Japanese economy, has intensified in the past decade and with it the pressure to cut costs by skirting regulations. Government rules for expensive earthquake proofing clashes head-on with the industry demand for speed and economy, meaning Mr Aneha was very unlikely to have been the only person to have broken the rules.

Even more worryingly, a combination of dwindling open land and new construction technology has driven buildings relentlessly skyward since the 1980s and Tokyo now boasts a fresh crop of gleaming skyscrapers. Nobody really knows how these buildings will stand up if a long-expected big earthquake strikes, but memories of the 1995 Kobe quake are strong, with its toppled bridges and cracked highways.

What has shocked many here most, though, is how easily the rules can be bent by resourceful men like Mr Aneha, who was responsible for submitting construction documents to local government. Once vetted, there is little follow-up and since 1999 private firms have been allowed to check building progress on behalf of local government. In the six years since, Japan has spouted 122 of these firms which last year were responsible for vetting 420,000 building designs.

Unreliable builders and dodgy architects in a heavily self-regulated industry driven by fast money in a country where earthquakes regularly kill and injure people: it sounds like a recipe for disaster. But perhaps the scariest development is that nobody can agree who to blame for the Aneha fiasco.

Mr Aneha, who has promised to appear before a parliamentary committee next week to testify, has already passed the buck, saying: "I cannot shoulder the burden alone. And I am not the only one responsible."

Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara, meanwhile, points the finger at central government which "should have properly guided the private sector". Not so, says a construction ministry official. "This is an issue that occurred as a result of private economic activities".

Not surprisingly in a country where construction money greases the wheels of power, the scandal has spread to the top of the political tree: a Japanese newspaper said this week that two days before the story broke a prominent politician brokered a meeting between the boss of one of firms that employed Mr Aneha and a construction ministry official. All have denied trying to bury the story.

As the bureaucratic bun fight drags on, the government has promised ¥8bn (£38m) in compensation to Mr Aneha's victims and has begun housing some in temporary public flats. Several tearful residents of Aneha-designed apartment blocks have been paraded across TV screens moving their belongings to temporary shelters. "I regret the day I ever heard the name Aneha," one woman told state broadcaster NHK. "I feel sick whenever I hear it."